Photo: Corey Sipkin/NY Post
On May 24, 1980, the Islanders won the first of their four Stanley Cups on Bobby Nystrom’s overtime goal against the Philadelphia Flyers that would give them a 5-4 victory. The Islanders won the Stanley Cup finals in six games.
41 years later, the Islanders played a Game 5 against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round on Monday night at PPG Paints Arena. As fate would have it, the Islanders managed a 3-2 double-overtime victory to be up 3-2 with an opportunity to eliminate the Penguins Wednesday night at Nassau Coliseum.
Islanders goaltender Ilya Sorokin was why the Islanders would not lose this game on the 41st anniversary of winning their first Stanley Cup. He covered up the Islanders deficiencies on offense and defense for the first two periods and part of the third period. He made saves after saves when the Penguins peppered shots after shots towards him all night. He finished the game with 48 saves, a franchise playoff record for a rookie goaltender.
It was until Jordan Eberle tied the game at 2 with 8:50 to go in the third period that got the Islanders going. From there, the Islanders figured it out by getting to the Penguins zone often and finally shooting pucks at Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry, who turned the puck over to Josh Bailey in double overtime that eventually turned out to be a winning goal.
On a night a team struggled to get it going, this is where a goaltender can make a difference. The Islanders haven’t had a difference-maker in the nets in such a long time. They may have found one in Sorokin. On this Monday night, he certainly was.
Sorokin improved to 3-0 in the postseason, and right now, he doesn’t have to worry about losing his role to Semyon Varlamov with the trajectory he is in.
No one had any idea what to expect out of the rookie in this postseason. Not even the Islanders. Sure he played great in the regular season. Sure he had playoff experience in the KHL. But there is no substitute for Stanley Cup playoffs experience where the intensity and speed of the game is like 100 mph.
Sorokin is getting a playoff education, and so far, he has come into his own. He will be even better from this experience.
The Islanders have a chance to win the series and even win the Stanley Cup because of him. As good as Varlamov is, I don’t know if he is that guy. He has a history of giving softies at the wrong time as we saw in Game 3 when he gave up a softie to Brandon Tanev late in the third period after Cal Clutterbuck tied the game at 4. This was why it was a no-brainer for Islanders head coach Barry Trotz to go back to Sorokin in Game 4.
Sorokin may have been a passenger rather than a driver in the Islanders’ 4-1 Game 4 victory over the Penguins, but on this night, no one can argue about him being a driver.
Sorokin was locked in from the start when he stopped Teddy Blueger a couple of times. Frederick Gaudreau shot wide just to see Sorokin’s pads deflect the puck. Ryan Rust tried to pull a fast one on the rookie just to be stoned. His performance in the first period set the tone for what was a good night for this young man.
Jake Guentzel, Sidney Crosby, Jeff Carter and Tanev can serve as testimonials that Sorokin was legit. Crosby and Tanev got denied by Sorokin on a 2-on-1 in the first minute of the second period. Sorokin made a chest save of Guentzel in the first period. Carter had two good chances to score just to see Sorokin make that save
The Islanders have to feel good about their chances to finish out the Penguins either in Game 6 or 7. If they can’t get it done Wednesday night, they won’t fret about Game 7 because Sorokin can steal a game on the road as he did in Game 5.
Here’s where you love Sorokin: He is quick to the puck. He knows where to put himself in a position to make glove saves. He has such a quick reflex to where the puck is going. He has great instincts. He has a feel for where the puck is heading. He does not give up rebounds or give the team a second chance to score.
It’s no wonder why the Islanders have been high on him for a long time and why they wanted to play him this season. The future is now, and there’s no better time than the present. This is a team that can win the Stanley Cup. They feature many gamers on offense. They are one of the best defensive teams in the league. They are so well-coached. Now they have a goaltender that can complement all that.
A performance like Game 5 should make the Islanders feel good about their future-turned-present goaltender now and beyond. A goaltender picking up his teammates on a night they did not have it. A goaltender who stole a game for his teammates.
After a performance like that, everyone would love to see an encore from Sorokin.
He will get many more games to do just that now and for years to come.
He could be the star of this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs overall when all is said and done.